LOS ANGELES – Gary Oldman has played Beethoven, Lee Harvey Oswald, Sid Vicious and Pontius Pilate in his 35-year acting career, but he says taking on Britain’s Winston Churchill was by far the most daunting.
Months of research, four hours for makeup and costumes every day, and capturing the famous voice of Britain’s wartime prime minister were just some of the challenges facing Oldman in the movie “Darkest Hour.” Stamina was another.
“Churchill is arguably the greatest Briton who ever lived to many people and he has been portrayed many times before. You just have to slay those dragons and put it aside,” Oldman, 59, said.
“It fills you with fear, but maybe that’s what gives you the best work,” he added. “I‘m in almost every scene in the movie and I had long working days and hours in the makeup chair. I hoped I could get through it. And I had to come in every day with energy.”
The film, directed by Joe Wright and opening in U.S. movie theaters on Wednesday, focuses on May and June 1940 when Britain appeared on the brink of defeat in World War Two and Churchill faced deep divisions in his own government, the military and the monarchy.
Oldman’s risk appears to have paid off. The London-born actor, director and producer is tipped by awards watchers as a front-runner for what could be his first Oscar.
Getting there took six months of research, watching and listening to documentary footage of Churchill, and a total face prosthetic for Oldman, who bears little resemblance to the stooping, bow-tied British leader.
“Two hours, forty-five minutes into the makeup, you start sort of seeing the spirit, at least, of Winston looking back at you,” Oldman said.
The plethora of recorded Churchill speeches made the task of capturing his voice harder rather than easier, Oldman said.
“Finding those cadences and those rhythms in his speech – they were more prominent when he was publicly speaking. It’s how we think he sounds, but he doesn‘t.”
Churchill’s gift for rhetoric is not only central to the movie, it was a crucial element in Britain’s response to the threat of defeat by Germany in 1940, Wright said.
“It’s a movie about words and the power of words to change the world and change the course of history,” said Wright. “One of my favorite lines is where Lord Halifax says Churchill ‘mobilized the English language and sent it into battle’.”